Forget Texas Hold ’em. Slot machines are the new craze in American gambling. Record slot machine revenues helped Pennsylvania pass New Jersey as the nation’s second-biggest gambling market. Here in Massachusetts, the state wants in on the action too — last November, Gov. Deval Patrick okayed the creation of a single slot machine parlor, its location to be decided by a public bidding process.
Now, a harness racing track in Plainville, Mass., less than an hour’s drive from Boston, has announced it wants to bring 1,250 slot machines to this town of 7,000 people. Management at the Plainridge Racecourse told the Boston Globe that it needs the slots to survive as interest in harness racing declines, and that the project will provide tax revenue and steady jobs. A final decision won’t be made for months. The state gaming commission only met for the first time on April 11 and hasn’t yet finalized the licensing process for slots. Moreover, Plainville residents will have to vote in favor of the racetrack’s proposal before it can be approved.
When Latitude News heard about this story, the first thing we thought of was a question from one of our readers, who sent us this tweet in response to our piece on a casino in Foxboro, MA:
Well, Martha, for slots there’s no better place to turn than Australia.
Pokies Down Under
Aussies love a wager. Last year they spent around $23 billion on gambling, the highest per capita in the world. At least half of that was bet on slots, or “pokies,” as Australians call them (it’s short for poker machines). The country currently has more than 200,000 machines in at least 1,500 different venues. That’s a fifth of the world’s total.
“They’re ubiquitous,” says Christopher McAuliffe, Visiting Professor of Australian Studies at Harvard University. “They’re in local bars, clubs, hotels. If I walked out my front door [in Melbourne], a hundred yards down the street there would be a pub and a room with maybe 30 electronic gambling machines.”
But these contraptions aren’t the one-armed bandits of yore, where you pull a creaky handle and hope for three-of-a-kind. Modern slots are like flashy, hi-tech video games that play music and scenes from TV shows. Some let you place a bet every three-and-a-half seconds.
The “Crack Cocaine” of Gambling?
People who gamble on slots do it even though they’re almost guaranteed to lose. Playing the “pokies” isn’t like sitting down to a game of blackjack or seven-card stud, where you know the odds and have a reasonable idea of what the house is holding. A slot machine is like a coin flip. Nothing you can do will change the chance that you’ll win. In Australia, pokies are guaranteed by law to pay out 87 percent of what you put in. Yes, that means if you put in a hundred dollars, you’re promised eighty-seven back. The house keeps the difference.
“In all but the most extraordinary cases winning [over the long term] is impossible. But the random nature of these machines makes people think they’re just one twirl away from a jackpot,” said Dr. Alex Blaszczysnki, head of the School of Psychology at the University of Sydney and an expert on gambling behavior, in an interview with Latitude News.
Scientific research suggests gambling triggers dopamine centers in the brain, just like habit-forming drugs, and slots are the most addictive of all. Enthusiasts who stop playing can experience symptoms of physical withdrawal. As a result, some experts have compared slots to “crack cocaine.”
Trouble in Plainville
Naturally, concerns about addiction and crime have popped up in Plainville. Slot machines are “a breeding ground for problem gambling,” says Mary-Ann Greanier, co-founder of No Plainville Racino, a local anti-slots group. “We’re not talking about morality here. It’s about children not getting fed because their parents are addicted to gambling. It’s about people beating their spouses, or not having enough money to buy food. It’s a thread. Once you start tugging on it, our whole town unravels.”
Prof. McAuliffe’s grandfather was a bookie. His brother raced greyhounds. He says he has no moral objection to gambling. But for him, the parallels between Plainville and his homeland are clear: “As an Australian, the first thing you think of on seeing this story in Massachusetts is that government will come to depend on these machines [for revenue] while ordinary people, the people who can least afford it, will lose their money.”
In America and Australia, the relative number of problem gamblers is similar, ranging from between 1 to 5 percent of the total population depending on the criteria of the study. These problem gamblers are much more likely than non-problem gamblers to divorce, suffer from depression, abuse alcohol, engage in criminal activity and commit suicide.
Problem Gamblers: A Cash Cow for Casinos
Even though their numbers aren’t huge, problem gamblers still lose an incredible amount of money – and casinos would hardly be as profitable without them. A 2004 study in Ontario found that people with a moderate to severe gambling problem provided 36 percent of casino revenue there. A similar study in Australia found that around 40 percent of the gambling industry’s profits come from people who are addicted to pokies. On average, problem gamblers in Australia each lose $21,500 a year. They’re also a lucrative source of revenue for Australia’s states, which cannot impose an income tax.
Australia recognizes it has a problem with pokies. The government there recently introduced what it called “pre-commitment reform,” a law limiting the amount gamblers could spend on each session with a pokie. But the gambling industry launched a $3.5 million media campaign against vulnerable government MPs, calling the law “un-Australian.”
Most pokies are operated by neighborhood clubs, not casinos. Some of these clubs are small and family-owned. Others are huge and run by the country’s biggest rugby teams. Either way, they are a popular destination for Australians looking to kick back, have a beer and, yes, play the pokies. Gambling industry groups argue that pre-commitment will eat into the clubs’ profits, killing jobs and lowering government revenues. Clubs, they say, are at the heart of Australian social life and do important charitable work.
Not everyone agrees. Prof. McAuliffe believes that “the spending of gambling revenue on the community is a fig-leaf. It’s not like they’re going out to homeless shelters. They’re building bigger sports facilities and calling it a social benefit.”
Nonetheless, the government delayed further discussion of reform until May. A pre-commitment trial will begin in just one region, the Australian Capital Territory, starting in February 2013.
Dangers of the Nanny State
Even someone as familiar with problem gambling as Blaszczysnki admits that pokie reform is a difficult issue. “It’s a question of civil liberties,” he says. “If you impose mandatory pre-commitment on gambling, say 200 dollars a month, why not extend the commitment to alcohol and limit people to four drinks a day? You’d have a significant social benefit . . . [then] what about fast food? You’d see a general creep into a highly regimented 1984 or Brave New World scenario.”
What questions would you like to see answered about gambling across the globe?Discuss this